August 24, 2011

Libya, 24 August 2011

I have been on vacation for the past week, largely away from both the internet and television in rural Tennessee, and I missed most coverage of the rebel advance into Tripoli. I must say, I was shocked when I read the news. I had expected the fall of Tripoli to drag out for weeks. I had reasoned that both parties to the conflict were continuing to fight a more-or-less zero-sum game and that the loyalists around Tripoli could be expected to mount a fierce and organized defense. I had also been privy to all kinds of pessimistic assessments of the combat abilities of the rebel fighting forces and thought they would have a much tougher time advancing on prepared defenses than they ended up having. In the end, I perhaps overestimated the competence of the loyalist forces (among whom we have not had the luxury of embedded reporters to assess their quality). I might have also underestimated the effectiveness of discrete allied advisory teams and the tactical application of air power. If you are someone who saw this coming, though, feel free to pipe up in the comments and tell me what else I missed.

Given my poor record of prognostication this year -- which includes my opinion, expressed in January, that Hosni Mubarak would retain the loyalty of his military (!) -- you can be forgiven for doubting any other predictions I have for 2011. I'll make, instead, a few observations.

1. It has been said before and ad nauseum but bears repeating: the war in Libya does not stop with the fall of the Qadhdhafi regime. The war in Libya stops when Libya's new rulers a) train and field enough security forces of their own to maintain public order and then b) create institutions to redistribute the resources of the state and address popular grievances. So let's hold off on the celebratory handshakes, eh?

2. Some, knowing #1, are already suggesting NATO provide ground forces to serve as peacekeepers and advisors. I am not sure how wise this would be. Given how few U.S. interests are at stake in Libya, it makes more sense -- to me, at least -- for other nations and coalitions to take the lead in partnering with Libya's new government. I am thinking, especially, of the Mediterranean countries. (Not that Italy did such a hot job creating enduring public institutions the last time they were around.) At the least, I think the calls for NATO peacekeeping forces (or even advisors) is premature. Serious questions to which I do not know the answer: have the rebels even requested such forces? What would the mission of these forces be? What kind of mandate, if any, would they enjoy from the United Nations?

3. The single most important issue for me, which I was screaming about several days ago when the defenses of Tripoli began to collapse, concerns the status of Libyan munitions -- especially Libya's anti-aircraft weaponry. I hope the United States and its allies have a good plan to buy back or otherwise seize all those man-portable air defense systems that have walked off the Libyan battlefield over the past few months...

4. Many members of the Obama Administration, especially the veterans of the Kosovo Campaign, were more sanguine about the open-ended application of U.S. military power in Libya than I was. I am glad the Qadhdhafi regime has fallen, but I worry we have reinforced a precedent where we do not feel the need to carefully think through our strategic goals (to include our desired end states) and assumptions before going to war. Because giving the U.S. military unclear guidance to prosecute open-ended military interventions is a recipe for a serious crisis in civil-military relations, we might not want to do that next time.

I'll conclude with linking to several smart and relevant articles that you have probably already seen. The first is a Steve Negus post on Arabist concerning the question of whether the rebels are ready to now rule Libya. The second was a brief on post-Qadhdhafi planning considerations by Daniel Serwer.

It's good to be back.